Cheerfully characterizing 2013's entertainment landscape as "total chaos," George Lucas said on Wednesday that the collision of movie, television, video game, and Internet content represents a rare godsend for creative types. "Right now, there are amazing opportunities for young people moving into the (entertainment) industry to say 'Hey, I think I’m going to do this and there’s nobody to stop me’ because all the gatekeepers have been killed!"
Steven Spielberg, sitting next to Lucas on the stage of a University of Southern California auditorium, interjected, "They killed some pretty great people, too, who gave us our starts."
Spielberg smartly offered a shout out to the studio system that, once upon a time, unilaterally defined mainstream entertainment. But for the most part, he and Lucas displayed barely a shred of nostalgia when they joined Xbox boss Don Mattrick and CNBC-based moderator Julie Boorstin to celebrate the opening of USC School of Cinematic Arts's new Interactive Media Building.
Instead, Lucas and Spielberg, who dominated 20th-century Hollywood as masters of the buy-a-ticket, see-a- movie-in-a-theater universe, offered a bracing forecast about the shape of entertaining things to come. Here’s 12 predictions articulated by a couple of forward-thinking guys who invented the modern blockbuster (Jaws), revolutionized pop-culture merchandising (Star Wars), upped the ante on CGI animation (Jurassic Park) and pioneered digital filmmaking (Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace).
Spielberg said "We’re at the point right now where studios would rather invest $250 million in one film for a real shot at the brass ring than make a whole bunch of really interesting, deeply personal, and even maybe historical projects that may get lost in the shuffle. That’s going to be the big danger. There’s going to be a big implosion, a big meltdown where three or four, maybe even half a dozen of these mega-budgeted movies are going to go crashing into the ground."
Lucas elaborated on Big Movie Syndrome. "What you’re going to end up with is fewer theaters and bigger theaters with a lot of nice things. Going to the movies will cost $50, maybe $100, maybe $150. The movies will sit in the theaters for a year, like a Broadway show does, and that’s going to be what we call the movie business."
Spielberg predicted an end to the one-ticket-size-fits-all model that, with the exception of premium-priced IMax and 3-D screenings, has defined the movie business from its inception. "Eventually there’s going to be a price variance where you’ll pay $25 to see the next Iron Man and probably only have to pay $7 to see Lincoln. There’s going to be that in our future as well."
Spielberg, who’s producing an Xbox TV series based on the Halo game and directing a movie based on Electronic Arts’s Need for Speed game, said: "The key divide between interactive media and narrative media is the difficulty of opening up an empathic pathway between the gamer and the character. A woman in jeopardy, guy’s life in jeopardy, once you get the controller in their hands, everything changes. You go from the experience of empathizing with performance mo-cap actors in a very realistic three-dimensional world, where you get kind of involved and learn the story and you hate the bad guy because he’s murdering innocent people and stuff like that . . . then all of a sudden it’s time to take the control. The second you take the control, something turns off in the heart and it becomes a sport. Right now, the great abyss is in allowing a player to become emotionally attached to a character."
Lucas said, "The gaming industry moved toward hard-core gamers who said 'I want a game where I can shoot somebody and blow their head off.' So the game industry moved in that direction. Of course, you can’t empathize with somebody you’re going to kill so that whole idea went out the window.
"The idea of creating characters you can empathize with is a goal to be reached. Within the next four or five years we’re going to see video games for women and girls that will be a huge hit. It will be like the Titanic of the game industry, where suddenly you’ve done an actual love story or something and everybody goes, 'Where did that come from?' because you’ve got personal relationships to deal with—not shooting people."
Spielberg believes game controllers and gesture-driven artificial intelligence will give way to completely immersive game experiences. "The artery blocker is the game controller," he said. "Once you get rid of controls, a bit like what Don is working on with Kinect, you’re basically hands-free, and once you get rid of having to bring your hands up in the air to direct the game play and give the A.I. an indication of what you want to do—once even that’s out of the way, you can put the player inside the game where they have to make choices about walking through a door, just like you really would, or sit down or stand up or speak to somebody or not speak to somebody. Once we are hands-free, truly hands-free, and we’re totally immersed in it, then that’s a whole other platform."
"We’re never going to be totally immersive as long as we’re looking at a square," said Spielberg, outlining the traditional screen shape with his hands. "I believe we can get away from the proscenium. Whether it’s a movie screen or a computer screen, we’ve got to get rid of that. We’ve got to put the player inside the experience where no matter where you look, you’re surrounded."
Lucas pictures man-machine fusion as the end game for plugged-in recreation. He said, "In prosthetics, they can put an implant in your head and you can move your fake arm; you can control your body just by thinking about it. The next step is to be able to control your dreams. It’s exactly the same; it just taps into a different part of your brain. You’re going to put a hat on or plug into the computer and create your own world."
Spielberg interjected, "It’s The Matrix."
Lucas continued "We’re already doing it. That technology exists today. The only thing is, we haven’t turned it into an entertainment thing. We’ve just used it to help people who lost a limb move their hands and pick up things with their brain. We will be able to do the dream thing maybe 10, 15 years from now. This is not pie in the sky. It’s really going to happen."
Lucas, noting that he plans to focus on more personal filmmaking now that he’s sold his LucasFilm company to Disney, said, "Cable television started to go niche and now we’re really in that situation where all you need is a million people, which, in the aggregate of the world, is not very many people. And you can actually make a living at this, whereas before you couldn’t. We need to have these quirky things, and the quirky world is getting bigger and bigger. Because you can put your movie in little houses, put it on Netflix or something and actually make some money out of it."
Lucas likens content creators’ current monetary challenges to the Wall Street collapse five years ago. "If you think about it in terms of the economy, this is 2008," he said. "The stock has crashed. Everything is ruined. This is the time to invest. For the people who have the companies, they’re all panicked. It’s a mess. It’s total chaos. But out of that chaos will come really amazing things."
Dazzling new technologies notwithstanding, Spielberg cautioned that show business, past, present, and future, depends on stories worth telling. "The thing I emphasize to everybody who comes to work at my company is, don’t play with the toys until you have something to say."